Today's not a holiday, it's a remembrance

Today is much more than the close of a three-day weekend.

Sadly, for many people Martin Luther King Jr. Day is little more than a paid vacation day or a day out of the classroom. That’s a disservice to the memory of the man for whom today’s holiday was created.

Today should be a time of reflection on the life, ideals and the vision of the nation’s most famous civil rights leader.

Most schoolchildren know King for his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital. King stood before 250,000 civil rights supporters and challenged America to reject hatred and embrace equality. That challenge helped change the face of America.

King’s memory is marked in this community through school assemblies, in-class projects and volunteers engaged in community betterment projects. Those are fitting tributes to the true meaning of this holiday. Service to others was an integral part of King’s life.

The civil rights leader challenged his contemporaries to stand up for what is just and right. Today we can answer King’s challenge by making a positive difference in our own community and working for peace and justice.

Regrettably, King’s dream of a society without prejudice, where all are judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is still a distant dream.

Just when we think we’ve made remarkable strides as a nation — electing the first African American president — we are slapped in the face by the reality of racism at the highest levels of government.

Two examples:

Disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich who tried to sell Barack Obama’s vacant seat in the U.S. Senate to the highest bidder, was recently quoted in Esquire magazine saying, “I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived.”

Blagojevich’s black-by-osmosis comment doesn’t even deserve a response.

Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, topped Blagojevich in the insensitivity category with a private comment describing President Obama as having advantages as a result of being “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid’s comment, which stemmed from the 2008 presidential election, was recently revealed in the book “Game Change” by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Reid’s remarks were boorish and racially insensitive. The man, at the pinnacle of power in the 100-member club known as the U.S. Senate, apologized for the statements and President Obama graciously accepted the senator’s apology.

Sensing blood in the waters, Republicans were quick to pounce. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, both called upon Reid to resign as majority leader in the Senate.

Top Democrats and African American leaders rushed to Reid’s side but there’s no doubt that the senator’s crude remark has damaged his already shaky re-election plan.

The comments by Blagojevich and Reid are clear demonstrations that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality is a long way from reality in the United States.

We can, today, draw strength and inspiration from Dr. King’s dream, so beautifully stated in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial back in 1963 when he said, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday today, let us pause to remember how far we’ve come as a nation and reflect on how far we still must travel. And let us rededicate ourselves to living out King’s dream.